Grace and gratitude
For me, to wonder about something often means I am standing in wonder of it. I become awe-struck, in a reverie of marvelous admiration – observing and recognizing something that still lies far beyond my comprehension. It doesn’t mean, then, that I am simply curious. I am experiencing the intimacy of a dumb-founded gratitude for something other and greater than myself, and discovering that I am standing in what many have called the Grace of God, that ineffable Everything that includes each one of us.
I wonder, for instance, how other species navigate their own realities: how horses experience the musculature and drive of their gait, and how perhaps whales dream. And I wonder, do their dreams hold meaning for them? How does the weather follow, yet at the same time direct, the inclination of the climate? And how do our sheltering skies acknowledge at last the deep broad reaches of the universe that lies beyond? Seeking to embrace something larger, I discover we become embraced by something larger.
Grace and gratitude are closely related words – one for the gift that we are given, and the other for our appreciative response. Together these words reach thousands of years back, long before their common ancient Latin root gratus toward the Proto-Indo-European word "gwrHtos" – which ultimately means reverence for blessings received. This is not just about the appreciation of an occasional favor given by a friend. Grace is our constant embrace by a coherent cosmos, often personified by our religions as the embrace of a generous, caring god.
It’s been said that giving thanks ought not be relegated to one day in the year, yet here we are once again. As we enter the holiday season and approach that particular day, we remind ourselves to be grateful for the good life that we have always received, and we remember once again our ability to live life well. So when we say grace at the outset of our Thanksgiving meal we indicate our gratitude, for we’ve been taught – although we may often forget – that the words “thank you” make up a most powerful prayer.
As many of you may know, our very American Thanksgiving story reaches back to the legendary figure Tisquantum, who had been kidnapped from his village as a young man and taken to Europe. It was there that he learned about a race of people quite unlike his own and to understand and speak their language. When – after many years – he eventually made his way back, he found that his village was entirely gone and his people had all died of diseases brought by the Europeans.
Smithsonian Magazine has said that his Wampanoag name referred “to rage, especially ‘the world-suffusing spiritual power’ at the heart of coastal Indians’ religious beliefs.” At the risk of resurrecting Rousseau’s Noble Savage, I’d prefer to think of this “rage” as a passionate recognition, incorporation and response to the rich fullness of what is offered and received, not the sort of anger that demands retribution, but the sort of passion that brings about heartfelt compassion.
It was Tisquantum who famously welcomed the Mayflower pilgrims near the first day of spring in 1621, and guided them through that first hard year of the Plymouth Colony, translating and negotiating for them with the other leaders of the Wampanoag Confederation, and teaching them how best to live with the natural resources of the area. In the fall of that first year a harvest celebration was held, at which the English and the native men, women, and children all ate together – establishing our traditional Thanksgiving feast.
It’s altogether too easy to overlook the fact that on Thanksgiving Day we celebrate not just that day but the entire year, in recognition of the year’s ultimate bounty. We tend to limit our awareness of unbounded possibilities to the tangible experience within an immediate horizon at hand and ignore the immense realms that lie beyond. I recall Greg Sarris – who is descended from the Pomo and the Miwok people – being asked, “Where are the places your people hold to be sacred?” His response was that everywhere is sacred, every last inch of it.
It’s best not to believe that we are the ones that give meaning to what we learn, in a solipsistic sort of narcissism. We must humbly recognize how it always has had meaning, long before we knew of it, and always has been inherently coherent – and that there is a place for each of us within it. The Pilgrims of the Mayflower could not know how well Tisquantum had been prepared by his earlier travels for his role in helping them when they arrived, and how well he understood the responsibility their arrival and needs indicated – but they were thankful.
Considering all this can help us to appreciate something that we’ll never fully understand – as we stand in wonder, grateful for the grace that always provides the opportunity for a life lived well.